Review: 12 Mighty Orphans — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

12 Mighty Orphans tells the true story of The Mighty Mites, a ragtag football team from a Texas orphanage that took on the Lone Star State’s powerhouse high schools during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Scene from 12 Mighty Orphans
Sony Pictures Classics

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12 Mighty Orphans

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Stars: Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Wayne Knight, Vinessa Shaw

Writers: Lane Garrison, Kevin Meyer, Ty Roberts (based on a book by Jim Dent)

Director: Ty Roberts

Reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival

It’s strange irony that the most brutal of American team sports, football, so often inspires emotion-packed movies that could reduce a mad-dog lineman to a blubbering softie.

Who has witnessed the closing moments of Rudy and not choked up? What kind of a grinch could fight back the tears even while silently raging against the naked sentimentality of The Blind Side?

Add to that list of gridiron tearjerkers 12 Mighty Orphans, the true story of The Mighty Mites, a ragtag Texas orphanage team that took on the Lone Star State’s powerhouse high schools during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

It’s football…and orphans, for crying out loud!

Of course, even the most heartfelt story won’t score with an audience without the cast to sell it, and director/cowriter Ty Roberts has landed a first-rate ensemble. Luke Wilson stars as Rusty Russell, a math teacher/coach who shows up for work at the Masonic Home and School of Texas, an orphanage near Fort Worth, with an abundance of enthusiasm and a murky personal history (he also has an astonishingly patient and endlessly supportive wife, played with understated charm by Vinessa Shaw). Rusty immediately sets about clearing a nearby field and scrounging up equipment in order to field a football team — enlisting barely enough boys to hold scrimmages.

At first, no one seems particularly enamored of the game — not even the kids, who are just vaguely aware of the rules. Worst of all, Rusty faces outright hostility from the school’s influential print shop teacher, played with seething enmity by Wayne Knight, channeling a grotesquely violent version of Newman, his old Seinfeld character. In his eyes, the poor kids are little more than a source of slave labor, working long hours producing leaflets and posters for profit on the school’s presses. The longer they play football, the less money he can rake in (and skim off the top).

Luckily, Rusty finds an enthusiastic ally in the school’s physician, Doc Hall, played with chuckling good will by Martin Sheen. Doc runs interference with the administration for Rusty, who in return mostly ignores the fact that the old guy spends an awful lot of time rifling through his pockets for his whiskey flask. Doc also serves as the film’s narrator, filling in the blanks for those of us unfamiliar with the social and economic structure of 1930s Texas (i.e. orphans —particularly those who failed to get adopted before their teens — were virtual untouchables).

Of course, the kids take to football like they were born to play the game. And of course, Rusty prevails in overcoming resistance from Texas’ elite high schools, who don’t want anything to do with this motley crew. And doubly of course, in their very first year Rusty leads them to the cusp of a state championship. The narrative hums with efficiency — but it also crackles with authenticity, because, as hard as it is to believe, the true story of Fort Worth’s Mighty Mites unfolded almost precisely as depicted here.

As director, Roberts has the good sense to let his three veteran stars run the offense — along with Robert Duvall, who makes a curiously brief appearance as a school beneficiary. But as the film’s title implies, there’s also a lot riding here on performances from a bunch of young newcomers. The guys — virtually all of them hailing from in and around Texas — tackle their roles with a gritty sense of teamwork. They seem perfectly at home on the field, whether balling or brawling, and the film’s themes of tolerance and unity are well-served by their clear willingness to work as an ensemble.

Filmed in Texas, directed and written by Texans, featuring a largely Texan cast (Wilson is Dallas born and bred), it’s inescapable that 12 Mighty Orphans is a love letter to the Lone Star State and the plucky spirit on which its citizens pride themselves. The film addresses racism and class prejudice, but ascribes those qualities exclusively to the villains of the piece. For the most part, the folks of 12 Mighty Orphans are big-hearted boosters of the underdog, allies of the audience — rooting for redemption, cheering the heroes, whether they conquer or not.

As the final credits roll, photos of the actual Mighty Mites appear on-screen, along with written accounts of what became of them. Some were war heroes. One went to West Point. Others became players in the NFL. And one returned to coach football on his old home field.

Just try to keep from sniffling through that.

Featured image: Sony Pictures Classics

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